You might want to hit the bar before you take your seat for The Pirates of Penzance as performed by the Chicago-based theatre company The Hypocrites, now ensconced in the Theatre Lab at Olney Theatre Center. Luckily the bar is part of the set and is open throughout the show, as cast members remind the audience before the show proper kicks off.
The reason for visiting the Tiki Bar for a soda or even a cup of liquid courage for Gilbert & Sullivan’s piratical romp goes hand-in-hand with the Hypocrites signature style of presenting the operetta. More on the booze in a moment.
Now in rotating repertory with its sister show, The Mikado, The Pirates of Penzance is one wild ride of a show surrounded by a bustling and buoyant beach party. The Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab has been transformed into a no-holds-barred, summer-by-the-bay atmosphere, courtesy of scenic designer Tom Burch (also responsible for the carnival setting for The Mikado). A lifeguard tower, a deck and several kiddie pools full of beach balls are all that is needed for the Hypocrites to take the audience on adventures with those orphan-challenged and lyrical pirates from Penzance. With beach party attire and wild accessories, designed by Alison Siple, the cast would also appear just as at home as rabid Jimmy Buffett fans.
The fun-tastic boardwalk fits right into the promenade style of presenting this Gilbert & Sullivan classic, where the audience is highly encouraged to sit among the performers throughout the show. The actors use simple signals to cue patrons who sit in their path and most people catch on pretty quickly. During the Pirates performance I attended, both children and adults looked like they were having a grand old time sitting in the midst of the action. During Pirates Sunday afternoon, about a half a dozen youngsters even camped out on the lifeguard tower and stayed, occupying themselves mostly with bouncing beach balls.
The actors are old pros at performing these adaptations of G & S operettas between their home-base in Chicago to various tour stops around the country. The actors take the audience sharing their space in stride and appear to thrive on the improvisational edge it gives to the show.
Perhaps because Pirates was the original G & S title to get the Hypocrites’ promenade-style staging treatment, this show practically leapt off of the immersive stage. The energy level of the cast stayed at such an intensity, it was almost too much to take in. The manic energy level bled over into the staging, which was more frenetic than I saw a few nights before during The Mikado. Being familiar with the show, I followed the plot, but I daresay some patrons less familiar with the story will likely be confused or overwhelmed. And this is why I recommended an early (if not often) trip to the Tiki Bar. An adult beverage might help calm the nerves that may be rattled at the non-stop party with songs and dances being hurled at you for over an hour. Or this style of presentation might just be up your alley and you will embrace it fully, as the Hypocrites wish you would.
As with The Mikado, the actors serve as their own musicians, and the double-duty of playing while maintaining character for an hour and twenty minutes certainly requires concentration and commitment. The actor/musicians were certainly up to the challenge of carrying the kinetic and tuneful performance, in spite of the unbridled pace.
The Pirates of Penzance
closes August 21, 2016
Details and tickets
Shawn Pfautsch was stylish and commanding as the Pirate King, celebrating the end of his apprentice Frederic’s time as an indentured servant. Frederic was sung with British pop style by the talented Mario Aivazian. As his former nursemaid and pirate’s maid of all work, Kate Carson-Groner makes for a hilarious and well-sung older woman, enamored of her Frederic.
Carson-Groner, in a marvelous bit of double-casting, also plays Frederic’s lovely love interest, Mabel, one of the daughters of the comically verbose Major General Stanley, played with nearly maniacal glee by Matt Kahler. His version of the famous patter song, “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General,” is a highlight of the score and this show. The rest of the ensemble – as pirates, daughters, policemen – all keep up buoyancy and stay fully engaged in the storytelling, lending stalwart support to Pfautsch, Aivazian, Carson-Groner, and Kahler.
I don’t want to spoil the frantic fun of the entire experience by exposing their little flourishes and embellishments, but this is a savvy and sharp group of comic actor/singer/musicians; under Graney’s direction, they not only get the G & S bits right (the play on “orphan” and “often” is still hysterical), they add some hilarious touches (look out for a bitchin’ guitar solo and a bit of “Eye of the Tiger” thrown in).
If you have not seen The Pirates of Penzance before, why not give it a whirl? For Gilbert & Sullivan fans (are there any of us left?), please note this is definitely not D’Oyly Carte or even Stratford Festival style, but it is inventive and fun, especially if you have had a few drinks.
The Hypocrites Production of The Pirates of Penzance . Libretto by William S. Gilbert . Music by Arthur Sullivan . Co-adapted by Sean Graney and Kevin O’Donnell . Directed by Sean Graney . Featuring Mario Aivazian, Kate Carson-Groner, Eduardo Xavier Curley-Carrillo, Matt Kahler, Brian Keys, Amanda Raquel Martinez, Tina Munoz-Pandya, Dana Omar, Shawn Pfautsch, and Lauren Vogel . Music director: Andra Velis Simon . Co-director: Thrisa Hodits . Scenic design: Tom Burch . Costume design: Alison Siple . Lighting design: Heather Gilbert . Sound design: Kevin O’Connell . Stage Manager: Miranda Anderson . Produced by The Hypocrites and presented at Olney Theatre Center . Reviewed by Jeff Walker .